Tuesday, January 30, 2007


by Kasturi Siva

"The possibilities are endless," he thought. He just needed one or two more "wins". Tonight maybe, if he was lucky. It was pasar malam night in one of the housing estates in the small town nearby, about thirty kilometres away from where he lived. There would be an endless number of makciks, mamis and ah pos weaving their way in and out of the stalls, clutching purses. Better yet were the ones who carried handbags, awkwardly, as if forced to use them to please their children who may have given it to them on their last birthday. He preferred handbags to purses. Strap ... that’s what he looked out for. Always made the job easier.

Later, after a "win", it always amused him how he would attempt to dispose of these bags. He thought about that stupid guy who was caught snatching handbags and was splashed all over the papers, the one who kept all the women’s identity cards. "What an idiot," he thought. "Did he think they were mementos of his skills, like headhunters keeping the heads of the enemies they had beheaded?"

He, on the other hand, prided himself on leaving no evidence. He usually tried to rip the bag into pieces and place them in separate plastic bags in the trash. Once though, he was lucky enough to "win" a Ferragamo. He recognized the brand– he had educated himself by observing logos and expensive items while sauntering in the shopping malls. He had always been interested in what the rich did with themselves. He knew he was not meant to be an ignorant low class guy. He had told himself this repeatedly, even in his sleep. He would teach himself what the government and his parents lack of money could not.

The Ferragamo handbag was a dark brown leather one. Leather so soft and sensous that when he buried his nose in it, he smelt cows and remembered growing up amongst herds of them in a small village in Bukit Mertajam. He became sentimental about the bag and on a whim, presented it to a sweet young thing he was going out with at the time. If she was surprised how he had obtained it, she didn’t show it. With a satisfied sigh, he remembered how he had been amply rewarded for that gift. Yes, once in a while, it was a good thing to do something differently from what he would normally do. Consistency may make perfect sense but deviation often brings unexpected pleasures.

Glancing at the old table clock in his room, he realized he had better have a bath soon. It was the same ritual before he ventured out to seek a "win". He entered the tiny bathroom with the cracked blue floor tiles and turned on the water tap full. When the pail was almost filled to the brim, he dipped into it with the plastic dipper and doused himself in cool water. He scrubbed at himself vigorously with a bar of Lux soap. At this point in his bath, he almost always thought about his mother. Back in the estates of Bukit Mertajam, his mother too had bathed with Lux soap. It was one of the few luxuries his family could afford and certainly the only one his mother allowed herself. Everything else in their home lives was ordinary or even less so. In a wooden longhouse shared with fifty other families, a bar of soap in a shiny packaging, adorned with the smiling fair face of some woman seemed like a slice of heaven, even if the woman on it looked nothing like any of the women who lived there.

His mind wandered back to his mother. She would emerge from the bathroom, after her evening bath, with her slightly damp faded batik sarong and a floral printed cotton blouse. Her hair would smell faintly of jasmine scented Tata hair oil. She would go straight to the small altar they had in a corner of the main hall and perform her prayers to the many different faced Gods, always begging them for mercy and protection. "You must pray everyday Kanna, God must never be forgotten, no matter what you do", she would instruct him and his siblings. At least, he had not failed her there, he thought wryly.

After his shower, he went to the small side table at the corner of his room where there was a picture of the genial elephant-headed Hindu god, Ganesha. He dusted off the table quickly and lit the incense stick and oil lamp. He closed his eyes and prayed. He prayed to the Remover of Obstacles to clear his path to a safe and bountiful "win" tonight. And as always, he prayed for the soul of his mother to rest in peace. He smeared the holy ash on his forehead and smiled. Feeling clean and blessed, he was ready to take on the world now.

The table clock showed 7.30pm. Dark enough to be safe and yet early enough to anticipate full purses and bags with money not yet spent. These days, even vegetables and meat cost so much that people were forced to carry so much more money with them, even to the unassuming pasar malam. He heard the shouting above his flat start up again. Damn Chinese bugger, always yelling at his kid. He knew the man beat the boy too. He heard the sounds of flesh connecting with flesh. He had seen the boy around. A thin pale fellow of about nine or ten with short spiky hair, a sorrowful face and sometimes bruises of various hues on his arms and face. He had a birthmark the size of a twenty sen coin on his left cheek. It did not stand out, amidst the bruises he usually wore on his face. Still, he noticed it. One of these days, he decided, he would go up there, bang on the door and demand to know what was going on. Then he would rescue that child from all the abuse he suffered. He would be his hero. He himself never had a hero to rescue him from his own darkness. He had waited and waited all those years after his mother had died and left him and his five siblings to survive the wrath of their drunken father alone. He had waited to be rescued but nobody came. He knew how difficult it was to fill his heart with hope although all it had trapped inside it was a torrent of venom and anger. He sighed loudly. He had no time for that now. Besides, listening to the yelling only made him feel less cleansed, somehow. As if the effect of his bath and prayers were eroding with each curse he overheard.

He quickly left his room, locking it behind him, carrying his motorcycle helmet and keys in his hand. There was no one else around tonight. The other two guys seemed to be out. The flat was quiet and dark. He didn’t bother to switch on the light in the hall. He let himself out quietly and went in search of his motorcycle. In his mind, he concentrated on winning. “It is all up to God Kanna, it is our fate what happens in our lives. But the brain is not there for nothing”, his mother had told him one day while feeding him some rice mixed with boiled lentils and shaped into uneven balls in her dark calloused hands. "If you eat all your rice, you will grow very good brains and then you can be a big man one day", she assured him. "You wont have to live like this," she said as she indicated with her head, the cramped and noisy long house they had lived in all their lives in the estate. As he sat astride his motorcycle and strapped on his helmet, he thought to himself, "Yes Amma, I will be a big man one day. And I wont have to do this anymore. Just a few more big "wins" and I can start something on my own", he assured his dead mother and himself, as he pulled down the dark visor over his face.

As he cruised slowly towards the pasar malam area, he kept his eyes open for possible victims and his body alert for snoopy policemen. He spotted a matronly Makcik walking alone with a fat purse in her hand. He contemplated her purse with some hope until he spotted her big black umbrella swinging from her other hand. "Too risky," he sighed to himself. His dark watchful eyes roved over the crowd as he pretended to fiddle about his motorcycle and helmet. Suddenly, he spotted her. A Chinese lady of about 50 or so, with a blue flowered blouse and black pants and more importantly, a big handbag swinging carelessly from her right elbow. She was not on the main pasar malam road yet. If he was going to do this successfully, he would have to act fast while she was on this road, which was perpendicular to the main one and not crowded with stalls and that many people. He decided to go for it. This was something he had learnt in this business; one had to be swift, fearless and practical.

He took a deep breath, pictured the Ganesha in his room and revved hard on his motorcycle accelerator. As he neared the Chinese lady, he stuck out his long left arm toward her. She, perhaps sensing something, suddenly turned her head in time for his arm to knock at it hard on the right. As she lost her balance, he jerked at the handbag strap and wrenched it off her elbow. It came off easily. He usually made it a point never to turn back and look. This time though, he felt his head, almost of its own volition, turn around. He saw the lady crashing to the ground and rolling toward the large monsoon drain. He took in her startled look, the open-mouthed but silent scream and noticed how she tumbled in head first into the drain, like the Olympic divers he saw on television who dived into twinkling blue pools with their sleek wet heads first. The lady however went in with far less grace. With all his might, he jerked his gaze back to the front and concentrated on making a quick escape. As he maneuvered his motorcycle through the shocked and thankfully inert passers by and turned on to the main road, he saw the lady’s face in his mind. Although he knew she could not have seen his face through the visor, he felt her startled eyes bore a hole in his back. He sped down a labyrinth of roads which he knew like the back of his hand. When he finally pulled over at the fringes of a secondary jungle about ten kilometres away and switched off his engine, his heart was thumping wildly in his ribcage and his breath was still coming in shorts spurts.

Like a child opening a much anticipated present, his hands shook as he opened the handbag and searched inside. "Ganesha, Ganesha, help me please," he prayed fervently. He found a pack of tissues, a hair clip and a half bottle full of "minyak angin cap kapak". These he tossed aside impatiently while cursing in disgust. Then he spotted a smaller embroidered purse, bulging with coins and a wad of bank notes tied with a rubber band. He yanked at the rubber band and quickly counted the notes – there was two thousand ringgit in total. He leaned back on his motorcycle, feeling dizzy and not believing his luck. He wanted to shout out loud, whoop in joy and laugh madly. This would be a great boost to the growing pile under his mattress, his entry into starting his own car wash business. Who would have thought that old lady would be carrying this much cash on her, he wondered with a shake of his head. Anyway, he wasn’t complaining. "Amma, I’m almost there. Almost there ...", he whispered.

He looked down at the handbag, still in his hand and searched for anything else it may contain. He pulled out a bunch of papers folded in half. He squinted in the fading light and realized it was some official document with a government stamp on it. "Lembaga Kebajikan Negeri Selangor" it said. He read the first few lines. He couldn’t understand why his eyes remained riveted to the words when he would have ordinarily just thrown the papers away. He continued to squint at it and tried to make sense of the print.

It was an official approval from the state Welfare Department for a certain Chan Ah Moy to adopt and take custody of her grandchild, Lim Wee Siong. The administrative and legal fees of RM1800 was to be paid in full by a certain date, which he realized was the day after this, without which the approval would be revoked. A police report attached to the approval document came loose from its paper clip and fell to the ground. He picked it up. The report was against a Mr Lim Ah Leng for physical abuse of and neglect of his only child, Lim Wee Siong. There were pictures of the boy, showing various marks of abuse, taken from different angles. He stared at the photos. The face of the boy stared back at him with vacant eyes, eyes that looked like they had been waiting a long time to be rescued. He crumpled the papers and slid to the ground. He closed his eyes but all he could see was the birthmark the size of a twenty sen coin on the boy’s left cheek. Who would rescue Wee Siong now?